The exploration – exploitation dichotomy is seemingly a foundational and omnipresent trade-off in our lives. From the mundane and the everyday to the complex and the life-changing, we are forever confronted with the choice of exploration or exploitation. Optimizing for one seems to minimize the other. What does it mean to explore? To exploit?
Explorations are open-ended, whereas exploitation is goal-directed. Exploration involves finding questions, exploitation is applying solutions. Exploration is novelty, whereas exploitation is familiarity. Exploration acknowledges uncertainty and contingency, whereas exploitation has the trappings of certainty and predictability. The tool of choice to explore is a compass, but a map is sufficient to exploit. Exploitation is the core that looks at the boundaries, exploration is the edge that seeks the horizons. Exploration is an exaptation and exploitation is adaptation. Exploration is qualitative, while exploitation is quantitative. The outcomes in exploitation are distributed normally, whereas the power-law is the descriptive distribution during exploration. Exploitation has the veneer of causality but exploration is “non-linear” where effects are unrecognizable from their causes. Exploitation leads to change, exploration can lead to transformation.
In our brain’s tendency for perceiving the world through the lens of categorization – creating categories of a continuous world – optimizing for one seems to eliminate the other. However, in the the biological world this “dichotomy” is fact the foundational mechanism of change. Evolution has transformed this trade-off into a continuum, a loop, and a dynamic equilibrium. The “either-or” is a “both” on a continuum and a loop, feeding back and forward, to maintaining a dynamic equilibrium depending on the affordances in the environment. In fact, as Stephen J. Gould theorized and showed, change in the biological world happens via long periods of incremental change punctuated with bursts revolutionary change. In other words – dramatic and phase change is the product of “tailed” outcomes of long periods of exploration.
The evolutionary biologist Leslie Orgel said, “evolution is cleverer than you are.” So, in deference to the “wisdom” and “success” of nature, we are probably best served to observe and emulate the lessons offered by evolutionary processes. In that spirit, this space of essays is my attempt at explorations – for development, insight, and robustness against linear and non-linear change. As the historian Will Durant stated, “the only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual.”